This horror show of a year challenged us on every front. Finding ways to tend to our families and ourselves in the midst of an overwhelming global health and economic crisis wasn’t always successful in 2020. From loss of income to loss of connection and loss of life, the year’s consequences were not inevitable or deserved. Still, hope emerged from this city’s people.
At MLK50, one of our core missions, bearing witness, was challenged by this pandemic. We had to learn about working in the community safely to minimize risk for all. We took this moment to think about how photography can be used as a tool for liberation, rather than one of surveillance. These lessons are reflected in this depiction of 2020.
By telling the story of this year through images of the people at the center, we think there is some hope for a better Memphis in 2021.
It seems like the morning of every MLK Day march is met with frost on the grass at the corner of North Main and A.W. Willis, where folks gather before setting off on their annual route. The cold creeps under jackets but doesn’t deter the groups of folks who have made the walk from the North Main Memphis Area Transit Authority terminal to the National Civil Rights Museum. Though 2021 might be the first year in more than three decades that the march may not happen, the commitment that has carried this ritual this far is sure not to fade.
Our series during Black History Month highlighted the stories of four couples. Our sessions with Rev. Floridia Jackson and her wife Treace, as well as Emma and Thomas Trass, served as tales of sweetness and perseverance.
The disruption that the pandemic brought to everyday life was felt most sharply in Memphis by workers who had barely figured out how to survive in regular times. Many of them shared their stories in their own words with us during our first-person essay series. Read some of their stories here: Frank Johnson; Lorin Vincent Haines; Eileen Castine; Epiphany Jones.
April 4th outside of the National Civil Rights Museum is a somber affair. Every year, a large crowd gathers outside the balcony of the former Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, to pay respects with an intentional moment of silence. But 2020 brought a different kind of quiet to the site. Only a few people were there (along with a masked security guard), and there was no formal program presented by the museum.
Sepia Coleman is a home health aide whose activism with the Fight For $15 movement put her at the forefront of conversations about living wage reform. When the pandemic started, she wrote about the dangers she faced as she found herself on the frontlines at work. Her life took a frightening turn when she contracted the virus, resulting in high medical bills and little recourse or support. Through it all, Coleman’s courage in sharing her experiences reminded us how much is revealed about what needs to change when stories center the voices of workers.
“Pregnancy is stressful,” Maya McKenzie wrote in a first-person essay for MLK50 a few weeks before delivering her daughter, Paz, this past July. “Being pregnant during a pandemic is even more stressful. But being Black and pregnant during a pandemic and an uprising is devastating.” Thankfully, McKenzie and her baby made it through their birthing experience safely.
Photographer Brandon Dill met and interviewed working parents in Shelby County as the 2020-2021 school year approached and the school district deliberated what all-virtual education would look like. What he found were feelings of collective anxiety in the space between wanting the best for children and wanting to protect the family against a pandemic. Much of the testimony was rooted in love and perseverance. Read insights from the families here: Part I; Part II
Dill also shared a survey of thoughts, worries, hopes and desires from folks in Orange Mound and Soulsville as part of his photo booth project. See those images and words here.
The One-Man Voter Registration Campaign
Reginald Upshaw set up his voter registration booth on an empty corner lot he owns in the Klondike-Smokey City area. He planned to set up on the Fourth of July, but the smoke from fireworks during this year’s celebrations made him wait until the next day. While he only logged single digit registration numbers, Upshaw considered it a victory. “I was ecstatic,” he said of the first person he helped, “I took the guy’s picture. We took a selfie together. He told me, ‘I had just given up.'” He said the work is very important to him because it needs to be done, “It’s a struggle. I wouldn’t be in it if it wasn’t.”
As advice about social distancing and its role in reducing the spread of the pandemic was setting in, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police happened on May 25, 2020, and people poured into the streets. Floyd’s death, caught on video, burst a dam of grief, anger and pain that flooded the streets of cities and towns across the world. People organized as safely as they could to speak out and claim a fight against anti-Blackness, misogyny and their systemic manifestations.
In Memphis, activists spent much of the summer speaking the names of Breonna Taylor, Darrius Stewart, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Oluwatoyin Salau and other lives cut short as a result of racism’s reach into our systems. The fights continue in the organizing of Memphians against threats that disproportionately affect Blackpeople, such as the Byhalia Connection pipeline, which threatens the mostly-Black neighborhoods of southwest Memphis, and a gas station that was proposed in the Prospect Park neighborhood.
Andrea Morales is the visuals director for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at email@example.com
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.